When you first came to Princeton what did you think your major would be?
Since I was going to go back to Singapore to work for the government after graduation, I thought that I would major either in economics or public policy.
What made you decide to major in philosophy?
Before arriving on campus I knew nothing about philosophy. Perhaps I had read somewhere that Descartes had said that he thought and therefore he was, and that was it. Then I took Philosophy 200 the fall of my freshman semester and loved it. I decided that philosophy was the perfect major for me – it was rigorous, but unlike mathematics it was conducted mostly without equations (which tended to make my mind go blank), and it did not require a good memory or ability to synthesize large amounts of information (both of which I lacked).
My preceptor, who was a graduate student, made a huge difference. Besides asking really challenging questions in precept, he sent me some of his own work and asked for my comments. That gave me a flavour of what independent work in philosophy would be like.
It also helped that we read David Hume in that class. I thought he was right about everything and a pretty swell guy. I wanted to grow up to be like Hume (I still do).
Are there any stories about your experience as a philosophy major at Princeton that you'd like to share?
As I took various philosophy classes during my freshman, sophomore and junior years, I kept a sheet of paper on which I wrote down any questions that popped into my head that were not really related to the class I was taking. At the end of my junior year, Michael Smith, who had just joined the Princeton faculty, gave a talk on what was called “metaethics”. It turned out that almost all the questions I had written down on that sheet of paper were metaethical ones. I asked him if he would be my thesis advisor, and luckily for me he agreed. Writing my thesis under his guidance turned out to be the most incredible experience I had at Princeton.
What did you do immediately after leaving Princeton?
I went back to Singapore to work for the government department dealing with social assistance policy. I drafted standard operating procedures, prepared budgets, facilitated case discussions, staffed committees, developed IT systems, put in place performance measurement systems, conducted research. Organised meetings. Wrote emails. Wrote more emails. It was a big change, but immensely fulfilling in a different way.
What do you do now?
After six years (and three jobs) with the Singapore government, I took time off to study philosophy at NYU. After doing that for a year and a half, I moved back to Singapore to bum around and work on some personal projects, including being a low-wage worker at McDonald’s and continuing to write a paper I started at NYU on whether there are objective normative truths. In a few months I start work in some government department again (exactly which one I am not sure). [This interview was conducted in July 2013]
Philosophy has made me better at harnessing the power of reason. It has also helped me discover the limits of reason (although philosophers disagree about the location of those limits). I use the former skill and the latter insight every day, in both my personal and professional lives. Choosing to major in philosophy is one of the best decisions I have ever made.